I’m this week’s contributor for the Liberal Judaism ‘Thought for the Week‘. I think the link is dynamic and, therefore, won’t link to what I wrote next week – so here it is below for Parashat Terumah. Chodesh Tov everyone (Good New Month – the month of Adar begins today):
I know I am not alone in having bought a piece of flat pack furniture. Some years ago I bought a flat-pack desk; after all a Rabbi must have a desk at which to work. I read through the instructions, established I had all the parts and promptly began piecing it together. Sweating on a late summer’s day, I finally managed to stand the desk up and placed it in position; but something was wrong, it didn’t seem to lie flush against the wall. After much thought and head scratching it suddenly occurred to me in a flash of inspiration that one of the legs was on backwards.
It was with this memory that I have often wondered what it would have been like for Moses following the instructions from God for the mishkan (the tabernacle): the poles should be this long and the sockets and screen made of this and that material, etc.. Down comes Moses from the mountain with the instructions to give to the children of Israel and they use all their talents to produce the products with Bezalel and Ohaliab directing procedures.
But you never hear that the poles weren’t quite long enough or that the sockets were not quite wide enough. Or of the material being cut to the right length but forgetting to allow a little extra for the hem. Maybe the Biblical engineers were more effective at construction than our contemporaries – we don’t even read of the rising costs escalating beyond all reasonable proportions.
Yet, the construction information in the Torah, you could say its instruction booklet, is not entirely clear. One could not easily build the mishkan from the Torah alone and so we ask ourselves why all the details about it?
I think the details, the nuts and bolts of the creation of the mishkan, are part and parcel of its purpose, to be the dwelling place of the Divine presence; in our Torah portion, God says in reference to the tabernacle, ‘Veshachanti betocham’ (I will dwell amongst them, Exodus 25:8). It seems to me that through the mishkan the presence of God will emanate, along with the ideals inherent in the Torah, to the people who use it and who are affected by it – the nuts and bolts of the physical building become part of the nuts and bolts of the values of the community. The details, these ‘nuts and bolts’, are in a sense a microcosm of the whole mishkan, which is a microcosm of the society for which it is intended to be created – the Children of Israel.
Just as Genesis describes God resting from the work of creation of the universe on the seventh day; so too, the traditional formulation of work, from which some Jews cease on Shabbat, are derived from the work of creation of the mishkan. The mishkan is a portable ‘mini-verse’ that is a reflection of the universe. The mishkan is a microcosm within the cosmos.
It is because of this idea that the tangible material aspects of the mishkan cannot be ignored, indeed they are necessary and vital to its creation; the concept of the mishkan, a dwelling place for Ha-Makom (God) becomes inseparable from its very physical nature of place (makom). This, I think, is a crucial lesson for all of us involved in the development of community.
The instruction for making the Holy Ark, in which were housed the tablets, is written in the Torah in a plural form. From a midrash, we learn that this is to instruct the community that the crown of Torah is the inheritance of everyone and, therefore, everyone should participate in the making of the vessel that houses the Torah. For Liberal Jews, the Torah, in the widest sense of the word, is the collective understanding of our values, our affirmations, and our religious practices.
The construction of our communities: programmes, relationships, and ideas must be done in a way that represents everything the community stands for; all must be encouraged to apply their skills, to feel welcome, to learn and share together in its creation. It is not enough to have grand ideas about the values that we claim to hold. The nuts and bolts of our communities must reflect and build those values and principles, even down to the way we wish one another Shabbat Shalom or the food we purchase for kiddush.
The instruction booklet may seem confusing, but if we are to reflect an image of a universe that we would like to see on this world, then we must keep trying and keep building.